Legislation hiking fines for fire safety violations awaits action by Gov. Green

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Maui firefighters battle a brush fire in Olowalu in July 2016. A bill to impose a five-fold increase in monetary fines for fire safety violations is pending before Gov. Josh Green. Maui Fire Department file photo.

A bill that would allow counties to levy as much as a five-fold increase of monetary fines for fire safety violations is awaiting action by Gov. Josh Green.

An example of such violations would be failing to clear flammable vegetation near structures or property lines, especially during brush fire season.

During this year’s lawmaking session, state legislators approved House Bill 1842 and transmitted it to the governor on April 18. As of this morning, no action has been taken on the measure, the Office of the Governor confirmed. The governor has until June 25 to issue a notice of intent to veto any bills. Any bill not on that list will become law without or without Green’s signature.

If a bill is on the “intent to veto” list, the governor then has until July 10 to veto it. “The governor is still in the final stages of his internal review with the administration and so our office is unable to commit to his position until a thorough legal, fiscal and policy analysis has been completed,” his office said.


The bill hikes fines for fire safety violations or failing to comply with any order of the fire chief from $500 to $2,500 per day. Violators also face jail time of up to 30 days.

The bill compounds by day the current fine of no more than $500, no matter how long a violation is ongoing. The bill’s revised language for Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 132-13 says that each day a violation exists or continues “shall constitute a distinct and separate offense for which the violator may be punished.” So, a five-day failure to comply adds up to a maximum of $12,500; 10 days would be $25,000; and so on.

The legislation pending before Gov. Green came up Monday during a discussion of fire prevention by Fire Chief Brad Ventura and members of the Maui County Council’s Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning Committee.

The issue of overgrown vegetation on large tracts of land has surfaced recently during debate over the County Council’s closure of Holomua Road in Pāʻia, known as an encampment for approximately two dozen people without shelter. Homeless advocates said the measure to close or limit access to the road amounted to anti-homeless legislation. They said closing the road does nothing to require absent or negligent owners of large tracts of land to safely manage fire hazards such as fields with flammable grass and brush.


On Monday, Ventura provided council members with some context for House Bill 1842 and showed how it could encourage landowner compliance with fire safety laws, including the clearing of vegetation deemed a fire hazard.

“Historically in our code, we do charge a maximum of $500,” he said. “So, what that tells the landowner is: They’re only going to be charged $500 for us to do all this work: Hire a contractor, clear their land, send them a bill, and then they’ll be happy to pay it. With this new legislation, and us being able to charge up to $2,500 per day from the notice of warning, that adds up really quick.”

If signed into law by the governor, “this is going to obviously encourage people to be a bit more proactive and understand the fire code and meet the fire code on their property,” Ventura said. “People need to recognize the fire code isn’t ‘clear the whole land,’ but if there is a fire code violation we’ve identified, they have to address it quickly. Otherwise it’ll cost them a lot real fast.”

Criminal prosecution for repeat offenders would be a possibility.


House Bill 1842 also raises the criminal penalty of fourth-degree arson to a class C felony, if the offense was committed in an area in which a red flag warning was in effect. In the bill, “red flag warning” means a National Weather Service warning indicating weather conditions, such as warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds, that combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.

Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura asked Ventura if implementation of the new law would be preceded by a public education campaign.

“Yes,” Ventura said. “In talking with the Corporation Counsel, definitely once the law is signed, it’ll go out on our social media; it’ll go out to the public,” in community meetings, on the Maui County website, and “it’ll go wherever we can share it.”

In April, the Fire Safety Research Institute released its fact-finding, Phase 1 timeline report on the Aug. 8, 2023, Lahaina wildfire disaster. While the report described what happened through emergency radio transmissions, interviews and other information, an official cause remains undetermined for the blaze that killed 101 people and destroyed more than 2,000 structures.

The fact-finding report said windblown fire embers ignited “unburned grassland areas downwind from the initial fire location and continued to spread, reaching homes and other structures.”

Private landowners in West Maui have become defendants in lawsuits filed by wildfire survivors. The plaintiffs say the property owners should pay damages because they failed to control the growth of invasive species of grasses that later became fuel for the fire that destroyed most of Lahaina town.

Committee Chair Tamara Paltin said the Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning Committee would continue work on crafting legislation to help reduce large, fallow agricultural fields and enhance fire safety for Maui County residents.

Brian Perry
Brian Perry worked as a staff writer and editor at The Maui News from 1990 to 2018. Before that, he was a reporter at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, Guam. From 2019 to 2022, he was director of communications in the Office of the Mayor.
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